Remigio Mendiburu (Hondarribia, Gipuzkoa, 1931-Barcelona, 1990) is one of the most unique figures in Basque sculpture from the second half of the twentieth century. His career falls within the update of Basque art at that time, which he participated in since 1966 with the Gaur group, promoted by Jorge Oteiza, which combined the artistic proposals of Eduardo Chillida, Rafael Balerdi, Amable Arias, José Antonio Sistiaga, Néstor Basterretxea and José Luis Zumeta. With a variety of backgrounds and interests, and expressing themselves in different languages, these painters and sculptors shared the aspiration to break the isolation of the Franco dictatorship and regain their own voice via an art that was committed to the avant-garde.
In the context of the modernisation of sculpture launched by Chillida and Oteiza, especially in their early days, Mendiburu was capable of creating an oeuvre with unique interests and procedures, using wood as his main material and the local culture as the point of departure for wholly personal and contemporary sculpture.
Curated by Juan Pablo Huércanos—deputy director of the Jorge Oteiza Museum Foundation (Alzuza, Navarra) and an expert in the oeuvre of this Basque sculptor—the exhibition Mendiburu. Matter and Memory, which takes its name by the book of the same name by the philosopher Henri Bergson, explores the personality of this creator via around 100 pieces, including sculptures and works on paper. They were made throughout his entire career: from his beginnings in the late 1950s until his last projects in the mid-1980s. Many of them have never before been seen, and as a whole they are now being exhibited thanks to the support of BBK and the generosity of the Mendiburu family and other private collectors, joined by museums like Artium in Vitoria-Gasteiz, San Telmo Museoa in San Sebastian and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
The exhibition highlights the aspects that separate Mendiburu from the formal conventions of his day and resituate him as the author of experiential sculpture. The type of materials he used and the complexity of his constructions, based on accumulation and interweaving became the hallmarks of works brimming with biographic and sociocultural correspondences, which became one of the touchstones in the transformation of the art of his day.
After getting his start in the 1950s, still the heir to geometric and Informalist works, Mendiburu began to inquire into procedures closer to an organic, processual morphology which he used to construct his most characteristic works based on assemblages.
This accumulative process is one of his most personal contributions, a modus operandi that is an essential feature of his sculpture, while also transmitted to the experience of viewing his works. The experiential nature of Mendiburu's works can be seen in his early pieces, such as the series Taluak (1960–1962), whose construction is reminiscent of a child's game of dragging a lump of clay on the ground to break it up and change its morphology. This can also be seen in other masterpieces from his career, such as Txalaparta (1965), where one can perceive the echo of popular culture and materials --"old beams or old forgotten trunks..."--that Mendiburu takes up with a personal language that is a far cry from a merely romantic view of nature. Even though his view of the natural can clearly be seen, by using wood Mendiburu explores a territory which reflects the passage of time and its mystery and bears witness to a natural order in which humanity is bent on struggling for its survival.
In this way, the spectator is impelled to disentangle the process by which the work was created, most of which, with no platforms, are shown directly and concisely, like the artist himself. In JCage for Free Birds (1969), a wooden beam holds a spatial development from which a more lyrical expression emerges. Meantime, Zugar (1969–1970) depicts a corporality arising from the slow accumulation of fragments which he later used in other prominent pieces, such as the enormously physically and visually striking Argi hiru zubi (1977) and Murru (1978).
In the 1980s, Mendiburu experimented with other materials and languages in small works, such as the series of pieces that combine wood and cement, and the small Oriental-inspired sculptures made of polished wood and alabaster. Late in the decade, other works, such as those from the Bombarded Houses series, revive the memory of the penuries of the war and the bitter exile that Mendiburu experienced as a child, which, towards the end of his life, he acknowledged as core experiences in the development of his sculpture.
The experimental development of Mendiburu's work began in the early 1960s when, within an oeuvre verging on Informalism, he addressed sculptural materials through a variety of technical procedures such as rough-hewing, torsion, explosion effect and assembly, in a constant conflict among matter, form and energy. This first creative period also revealed his sculpture's indebtedness to objects and materials that are part of his biographical and cultural environment, with “poor” materials like rope, cement and sacks, which are capable of making references to his own background resonate by being integrated into the artwork.
Resymbolising forms from popular culture is also a common theme in some works from these years, such as Txalaparta, Aizkolari and Irrintzi, whose symbolic consideration from art and aesthetic construction are updated.
In the late 1960s, Mendiburu embarked upon a new field of experimentation grounded on the development of a personal kind of construction based on the accumulation and assembly of elements. Argi hiru zubi, which dominates this gallery, clearly represents this constructive process, which enabled the artist to overcome the objectual status of sculpture and situate it in the overflowing measure of the real. Just like other works from this period, this sculpture ceases being an object for contemplation and is instead articulated as a complex, expanded body which forces viewers to travel the routes that reveal its structure.
Works from this period also express another conflict in his Mendiburu's oeuvre: his battle with the pedestal, an element that Mendiburu rejected as he considered it outside the logic inherent to sculpture. By integrating the support into the structure of the work itself, the artist defines a more vitalist and experiential structure which is not placed but situated in the space and constructs a place.
The logic of assembly and of the interwoven body continued articulating the relations of the works that Mendiburu created in the 1970s and early 1980s. On the one hand, his sculptures become lighter and more projected into space, and he creates less massive and more organic works imbued with a kind of poetics. Xalbadoreri is one of the most representative works from this period. The apparent robustness of the elements comprising it contrasts with its tricky balance, visually situating it on the verge of collapse.
This gallery also houses a series of works made of concrete and wood based on the encounter of two materials whose behaviour and meanings are virtually opposite. Wood's status as an organic material, as a projection of the mutable, laden with memory, contrasts here with another element, concrete, whose essence lies in the immediacy of the moment of creation. The tensions between the two serve as a set of sutures, in which each of the materials seems to offset the shortcomings and limitations of the other.
In the mid-1980s, Mendiburu turned away from large volumes and embarked upon a series of smaller works, immersing himself in a more silent, delicate language. The encounter of materials like alabaster and boxwood, which grows very slowly, is characteristic of the works from this period, which are situated in a very different expressive context compared to his earlier works. The spread of Oriental thinking and Zen during those years also reached the consideration of space and matter in the artist's works.
This gallery also houses other works in a very different expressive category: the series La noche del exilio (The Night of Exile) and Casas bombardeadas (Bombed Houses), in which the artist's traumatic experiences at the end of the Civil War and his flight to France emerge eloquently. Throughout his entire artistic career, Mendiburu's sculpture never yearned for the perfect form but accepted its status of standing as a testimony of the conflict of existence itself.
Selection of interviews with and writings by Remigio Mendiburu; essays by Juan Pablo Huércanos, deputy director of the Jorge Oteiza Museum Foundation and expert in Mendiburu's oeuvre, and Alfonso de la Torre, art theoretician and critic specialising in contemporary Spanish art; and artistic timeline by Mikel Onandia, art history professor at the UPV/EHU.
Essay by Juan Pablo Huércanos and artistic timeline by Mikel Onandia available in Basque and Spanish to download free of charge at here.
Tour through the exhibition available to download for free via a QR code.
"Mendiburu and the place of sculpture"
Juan Pablo Huércanos
On our YouTube channel starting 16 April
"Remigio Mendiburu, objects of strangeness [in the forest of twentieth-century Spanish art]"
Alfonso de la Torre, art theoretician and critic specialising in contemporary Spanish art
Wednesday, 19 May, 7 pm, Auditorium
On our YouTube channel starting 21 May
"Flight time. Remigio Mendiburu within the context of Basque art in the 1960s and 1970s"
Mikel Onandia, art history professor at the UPV/EHU
Wednesday, 2 June, 7 pm, Auditorium / On our YouTube channel starting 4 June
Screening of "Nortasuna", by Pedro de la Sota
Monday 19 April, 24 May and 21 June 2021, 7 pm, Auditorium
The screening on 19 April will include a presentation by Juan Pablo Huércanos and Pedro de la Sota
Photograph by Jon Cazenave
Exhibition Set-up Design: Aritz González Prieto